10 Things Stranger Things Taught Me About Storytelling

OMG YOU GUYS I just finished Stranger Things. I know, I know, I’m slow, I’m late, I’m sorry. (I can’t binge watch TV anymore, much as I’d like to. Having a writing career + a five-year-old + some vague attempt at doing something other than sitting on my boot-ox means I can’t Hoover up a whole TV season into my brain over a weekend.)

The review is: I liked it. A lot. Maybe even loved it a little. It’s not without flaws, mind you. I thought what would be better than a review would be one of those posts where I dissect the thing a little bit, and talk about what might be some interesting takeaways for writers and storytellers.

SO LET’S DO THIS.

*loads up the wrist rocket*

*eats some Eggo waffles*

*summons the Demogorgon*

(Oh, real quick, some of this will feature vague, generic spoilers. I won’t spoil plot details, exactly, but some of what I discuss gives a shape of the show and the events that unspool within it.)

1. Creating empathy and redemption for characters you hate is fucking awesome and you should do it. Example: Steve. Fucking Steve. You watch the show, you hate Steve. You want Steve to get his salad tossed by the Demogorgon. And then, the show does this thing where it’s like, HEY, MAYBE STEVE IS A SHITHEAD BUT NOT A TOTAL SHITHEAD OH DAMN DID STEVE JUST REDEEM HIMSELF? The secondary lesson here is, to surprise the audience you don’t necessarily need some tricky turny plot twist. You can surprise the audience by revealing more of a character — by making them more than the trope. The Steve trope is that he’s every 1980s well-coiffed rich kid bully, but the show gives you more. I don’t know that it rounds him out in a really big way, but it’s a nice turn and it shows that subverting expectations and tropes can be a turn all its own — and one that’s more organic than most shitty plot twists. But here’s one of the interesting tricks to making an unlikable (or at least not-so-easy-to-like) character work: make them an underdog. Joyce is not exactly the most commendable mother up front, but we like her because she’s down on her luck. Hopper is a cop besieged by demons and he’s a brusque, blunt asshole — but again, we’re looking at an underdog, here. Ah, but Steve isn’t an underdog, and so we hate him — until later, when he becomes an underdog and suddenly we like him more, don’t we?

2. But, on the other side of the equation, if you decide to create one of those mustache-twisting villains — you know, a Palpatine who is evil because, I dunno, evil is cool, basically? — then you need to give them a suitable send-off. The show gives us a one-dimensional villain, then never really does anything interesting with it. And that character’s demise is so quick and so hasty it fails to give us the one thing you can really get from such an unsophisticated villain: the satisfaction of a just and righteous end.

3. The show does a lot of good with character agency, by which I mean, it is characters who create problems, who escalate the problems, and who inevitably complicate and then fix the problems. Characters want things, and in pursuit of those things, they fuck up and fail and then succeed as heroes. They push the plot. The plot doesn’t push them. Except…

4. The show occasionally drops out of this mode and then has characters act outside themselves to service the plot. They betray their own emotional intelligence, their own logic, and they do this in order to perform actions that seem necessary to move the plot along. (Example: two characters are out monster hunting, and one randomly disappears and doesn’t answer the other one yelling, and then that other one decides to just, oh, I dunno, crawl into a tree stump because sure, that seems like a good idea. Another example: a protagonist near the end commits an odd, out-of-character betrayal for no other reason than to tidy up the plot and create conflict.) Problem is, when the show does so right by its characters that when it does wrong? It is keenly, almost painfully felt. It is a break in the consistency and constancy of these characters.

5. Similar is true for how the show handles some of its women characters. It handles some of them, like Joyce, so well that when it totally fails Barb, boy howdy is that a glaring issue. It’s like running your thumb along a smooth wooden railing and then — AMBUSH SPLINTER.

6. A lot of TV shows would milk the story for as many episodes as it can. This one is a lean eight episodes, and it works. (Hell, I could’ve taken another 1-2 episodes.) It’s a good example to keep it trim, tight, tell the story using as few narrative building blocks as you can muster.

7. A novel translates best to television format, if you’re concerned about moving one to the other. A novel doesn’t fit well with a film — novels are stories in big, roomy containers. Shoving them into a movie format isn’t impossible, but it’s like trying to squeeze into your Prom Tux twenty years later. You’ve got too much history around your middle and trying to strain into a pair of powder blue suit pants is a good way to rip a seam in shame. Stranger Things — though not based on a novel! — is almost literally a novel in TV format. Episodes translate well to chapters, and each gets a name as in a horror novel. It feels in this way nostalgic not really to the 1980s, but more to the horror novels (even moreso than the films) of the 1980s. It captures the aesthetics of those movies, but it seizes on the narrative of the novels of that decade.

8. Everything is a remix, and that’s okay. Stranger Things leans into this harder than most, and wears its influences (Poltergeist! Stephen King! The Stand! The Goonies! Pretty much any sci-fi/horror film from the 1980s!) right there on its sleeve. It proves that it’s less about how original you are and more about how you rearrange the puzzle pieces to show a different image.

9. FUCK YEAH ROLEPLAYING GAMES. You wanna learn to tell stories? You need to play in — and eventually serve as DM/GM/Storyteller for — a roleplaying game session. It will tell you so much about how to set up the plot but to let the characters tell the story, it will tell you so much about not forcing things, it will teach you so much about how to keep people’s attention and what it means to thrill them or betray the intentions of the narrative. And it’s so awesome that D&D is a legit component to the story, not just as a nostalgic eye-wink but as a literal plot and character connection to the story. RPGs demand their day in the sun.

10. The ending to Stranger Things wraps almost everything up. This is key! It’s something too few shows do, now. Some have described Stranger Things ending on a cliffhanger, but a cliffhanger is where the whole plot stops and you think it’s gone over the cliff. This show wraps… pretty much everything up, and it leaves a few hanging threads that the show could either grab in S2, or it could… not. It’s the right mix. Leave us satisfied with the answer, but lay a few more questions out on the table oh-so-casually, as if it’s just a plate of cookies. Take a cookie or don’t, up to you — the dinner was still delicious.

36 comments

  • 1) Excellent review! I love this show, and have 2 episodes to go. Thank you for not spoiling it!
    2) “but it’s like trying to squeeze into your Prom Tux twenty years later.” – Ahem, If I lose 4 more pounds, I could fit back into my Prom Tux, thank you very much!

  • Haha, oh Steve. I hated him for being such a dick, but I mostly hated him for his hair. I heard myself mumbling “cut your damn hair” every time he showed up, but like you at the end, I was like, “he’s totally coming back to redeem himself!”.
    As much as I want more (and I sure do want more), I’m glad they didn’t string it along, but kept it nice and tidy, leaving you to hang for a possible second season. As painful as it is to wait (I wanted more as soon as the last credits rolled – WHERE ARE YOU EL??? Here’s your friggen Eggos), I’d rather have it done right, then dilly dally around for a few episodes, trying to muster suspense.

    Oh and I absolutely loved the soundtrack (quick fact – my roommate went to school with one of the SURVIVE members and got kicked out of one of their concerts – haha.) If you like that kind of music, some favorites of mine are Mega Drive, Kavinsky, and Time Cop 1983 (with a band name like that, how can you go wrong?).

    I’m anxiously waiting/hoping for more.

    • I think the one spot where I wanted to see maybe another episode was —

      SPOILER WARNING FOR FOLKS

      — when Hopp and Joyce end up in the building, that all gets resolved pretty hastily, and leads to one of the betrayals of character I was talking about above. I could’ve used a whole episode of them “in danger” within the Dept of Energy building. It also would’ve given us more time to learn about the SINISTER DOCTOR, who is basically just an evil jerk for being an evil jerk, I guess?

  • I’m on this bandwagon, too. Such a great show that played straight into the sweet spot of the kinds of stories I love now, plus the nostalgia of the stories I’ve loved in the past. I hope they make millions . . .and I hope they write a completely new story instead of trying to stretch this one out forever.

    @mirymom1 from
    Balancing Act

  • Very much agreed about Steve. He was my favorite character in the show, precisely because you couldn’t predict whether, in any given situation, he was going to act like an asshole or a reasonable human being. And even when he falls on the side of asshole, he’s generally got some real reasons for anger. I was happy he never turned into the rich jerk stereotype.

  • I LOVED this show. And, I totally want a season two. Yes, it wrapped up most things, but like you said, there was enough hanging to make a second season work.

    You were spot on with your review. I was really disappointed in how they handled the situation with Barb.

    • Loved this show & completely agree, Barb’s character played out disappointingly – some part of me hopes there’s some “ha ha, we got you” return of that character next season. Come on Duffer Bros, do her justice!

  • I knew you were watching it when the Demogorgon popped up in “25 Reasons Why I Stopped Reading Your Book”. Great show and excellent insight.

  • I actually don’t think Steve was that bad, even at the beginning. Steve’s main flaw is that he continues to hang out with a group of complete shitheads, so we associate him with their actions – especially because we expect him to be that “rich jock bully”. So we see everything he does through that filter. His friends act like jerks to people, and we see Steve being a jerk, even though he’s actually telling them to cut it out. He makes a move on Nancy and we see him pressuring his girlfriend for sex, even though he backs off immediately when she tells him he’s going too far. The one time he actually DID act like a bully, it was because he found out that someone had been taking semi-naked pictures of his girlfriend without his consent. We like Jonathan, so this makes us sad, but if we did not know Jonathan we’d be rooting for the guy who broke the peeping tom’s camera. It would be an interesting exercise to re-watch the entire show with Episode 8 Steve in mind, just to see how differently he comes across from the start.

  • My conjecture is that the show’s creators had material for a typical 16-22 episode season, but Netflix only gave them budget for 8. So the had to cut and condense the living fuck out of the story until each episode is concentrated story-crack. This is great in most cases, but gets a little clunky in a couple, which is where you saw those plot bits pulling characters around.

  • Oh man. I am so in love with this show, those kids, THOSE KIDS AND THEIR DND. I disagree with you about the show failing Barb–yes, I would have liked to see a little bit more development, but she got taken out of the picture so fast there wasn’t much time for that.

    Really I think all the little issues could have been solved if they gave the story 1-2 more episodes to play out all the way. The story is super concentrated and it is effective except for a couple small points. Namely, for me, the betrayal at the end & Steve deciding to go apologize. I wish both of those things had gotten a bit more time.

  • (WARNING: COMMENT LADEN WITH SPOILERS) Great post Chuck! I too loved the show and actually consumed it in one Saturday along with my 8 year old son. Yes! Netflix made a show I can watch with my kid! Like you, I was very impressed with Steve’s turnaround. I found myself rooting for him, and that was unusual. Thank’s for pointing out the underdog thing.

    Too me the show instantly reminded me of ET. At the beginning of ET, I do believe they’re playing D&D. The kid pretending to be sick to stay home alone and take care of his “guest”, the dressing up of 11 with dress and blonde wig (there was a scene like that on ET), even the fact that these kids are hiding a living, breathing being inside their parent’s home and the parent’s never realize it.

    Good point about the villain. Maybe we’ll learn more about him on S2 and they’ll tell the mother’s (11’s) backstory.

  • August 10, 2016 at 3:02 PM // Reply

    “as if it’s just a plate of cookies. Take a cookie or don’t, up to you” .
    No, Eggos! not cookiees! You’ve failed me…. for the last time. :D

  • Thought it interesting that a show that relied on evoking our nostalgia with particular shots also succeeded in subverting tropes, as with the redemption of Steve, as noted, and the fact that the teenage girl gets to have sex but not die/get horribly punished (the public shaming was washed up rather quickly). Sometimes you don’t even realize you’re carrying those expectations until you’re like, “Wait wtf is Steve being REDEEMED right now?”

  • The science teacher was THE BEST. If they don’t bring that guy back for season 2, I’m rage-quitting the show. (Not really. I can never stay mad at you, STRANGER THINGS.) How awesome was it that the kids could call him up late at night while he’s snuggled up on the couch with his wife/girlfriend for some high-tech betamax time and he’s just like, “Fine, THEORETICALLY here’s how you create a [spoiler]. Don’t hurt yourself and I’ll see you Monday.”

    • The teacher was great. Although Justin totally sold it, there with his ‘locked minds’ bit. Seriously, who knew from the initial impressions that Justin would be the smart guy on the team?

  • I was wondering why those two characters stopped communicating in the woods too. And who climbs into a freaky, gooey tree portal? Not me!

    SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
    *
    *
    *

    Form followed function pretty well in regards to the main villain. He had such little dialogue and effect on the movement of the plot that I didn’t care how he met his end. He didn’t show much compassion towards any or have the capacity. The show didn’t afford compassion towards him. He was a vehicle to create a revelation for Eleven.

    I also like that idea that another commenter had that some episodes were cut when they had to condense the show to 8 episodes. You get glimpses into a broader show that wanted to explore the villain (MK Ultra, the out-of-place scene with the mom and and aunt). Those strings connected the rest of the narrative with some poorly-tied knots, like they were attached somewhere else in the beginning of the show. Things also happened very quickly inside the Upside Down. Characters explored it deeply, and BLAM they’re back out and everything is great. Well, better than they were at the beginning perhaps.

  • I agree to a hundred percent with this review.

    What the writers of Stranger Things nailed is the perfect balance between character building and action. There’s no point in reading an action packed novel if the characters feel like cardboard cutouts and there’s no point in reading a novel where you can get a connection with the characters without anything interesting happening by the end.

    The thing I favored most was the ‘discovery’ and by ‘discovery’ I mean the way the writers hand the information out to the readers. A buffet of information about the creatures origin along with its strengths and weaknesses isn’t pleasurable whereas learning about it as the character does keeps you gripped.

    And there lies the potential for S2 and S3. There are still questions to be answered. And hopefully, their answers will lead to other unforeseen questions/plot twists.

  • Glad you pointed out the plot driving character inconsistencies in your fourth point. They were the only low points in the series for me. If the show had been more campy (which I’m so glad it wasn’t) I would have been more tolerant of the “don’t go in there!” tree trunk situation – sometimes it’s fun for the audience to be smarter than the characters, but not here. I have a harder time swallowing Hopper’s betrayal, especially because there were so many other ways they could have -easily- written that sequence while ending up at the same place and allowing him to be true to his character.

  • Playing Dungeons and Dragons in the mid-eighties was the first time I came face to face with dark storytelling. My friend Mike lived and breathed D&D and he was one of the coolest DM’s that I’ve ever played with. He didn’t turn me into a writer, but it was like being exposed to radiation, something in me was permanently changed.

  • Hey Hey so I didn’t mind how they treated the female friend, who’s name I can’t even remember. But how about Mikes dad who was just like a stand in for ineffective unnecessary dads??!!

    Loved it. Great story of friendship!

  • I loved Stranger Things so fucking much. Of course it had flaws but they’re eminently forgivable because the rest of it was just so damn good. It’s the first show/movie/book in ages that turned me into a total fanboy – I’m making fan art, reading everything I can about it etc. I’m giving it a second watch. And the score was the absolute shit.

    One interesting tidbit about Steve: the directors liked the actor so much that they rewrote his character half way through. And it was well done, the best part was

    SPOILER


    him backing down. But yeah – the separating in the woods thing was total BS.

    I like that they evolved the character as they filmed – that’s pretty cool. Maybe not as cool as letting McConaughey practically take over ‘Dazed & Confused’, but still pretty damn cool.

    I also don’t think they could have predicted how popular Barb would be. Barb was awesome. They handled the teen & kid relationships really well overall.

    I was satisfied with the ending too. Sometimes the bad guys don’t get what they deserve, as much as we like to see it. It’s like being beat up by a kid on the playground and the only justice is an adult forcing them to make a fake apology. It certainly helps with suspension of disbelief because we’ve all been there in some form or the other.

    If they didn’t make another season, I could live with it. I don’t mind that everything wasn’t wrapped up neatly. But of course, I really really really really want to see more!

  • August 19, 2016 at 12:52 PM // Reply

    I haven’t seen the show, and probably won’t, which makes it fun to read the comments, spoilers and all :)

    Just wanted to say, Chuck, you’ve got some great advice here, and food for thought, especially in the first 3 or 4 points about character. Sending me off to rethink some characters…

  • I watched all 8 episodes. The story was interesting and moved along well enough, but the dialog was crap — unrealistic, inconsistent, unbelievable. Especially the kids’ dialog. It made my ears hurt. Stupid definitions like, “A promise is something you can’t break.” Like what — a steel pipe? How could that possibly have communicated “promise” to someone who had no clue? Overall, Stranger Things, was — in my opinion — an interesting concept, adequately shown, but so poorly written, it’s details will fade from memory. In fact, I can’t even remember who Steve was.

  • August 27, 2016 at 11:24 PM // Reply

    Great review. Great show and you’ve analysed it well. BTW…how do you sign up to be a game story teller for role play as suggested in point 9?

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